We always have to chuckle when laptop makers talk about making business systems look more palatable to the employees toting 'em. After all, it's not like we're going to walk off the job because we don't like the looks of that black box we've been assigned. Or are we? Nonetheless, laptop manufacturers are going out of their way to make their corporate systems look (and perform) more in line with their sexier consumer cousins. Take the Lenovo ThinkPad X1, for instance, a slimmed-down version of the company's signature design -- updated with a buttonless touchpad, Dolby sound, and a much-maligned glossy display. Toshiba, meanwhile, recently revamped its line of business notebooks to look like the lightweight Portege R705 -- also a crossover hit.

Which brings us to the HP ProBook 5330m. This 13.3-incher has a metal-clad body and Beats Audio -- a first on an HP business machine, but a staple across its consumer stable. And yet, the company's wooing the IT guys, too, with a matte display, optional prepaid mobile broadband, Intel vPro technology, and TPM circuitry. With a starting price of $799, it scores big points for value, but can it hang? Let's find out.

HP ProBook 5330m review

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Look and feel


We'll be honest: after spending a few minutes with the 5330m back in April, we came away with the visceral feeling that its two-tone keyboard deck, beige trackpad, and boxy shape weren't particularly sexy -- let alone youthful. And you know what? We still don't think it's current, per se, but after a week of testing, we can at least appreciate what a well-made machine it is.

A big part of that, of course, is the materials used. With the exception of the bottom, the chassis and the hinge are both fashioned out of sturdy aluminum. As for the underside, it's made of magnesium, whereas even some high-end notebooks revert to plastic, and it has a soft, rubbery finish. The bottom also looks clean, with a pop-out door housing the removable battery (you will have to whip out your Phillips screwdriver to swap the hard drive or add RAM).

It's too bad, then, that this laptop that tries so hard to be hip still manages to look dated. Our big bone of contention has always been the strip of matte aluminum ringing the keyboard deck and palm rest. The contrast between the brushed and smooth metals and the light and darker greys is one busy combo, and makes the keyboard deck seem more cramped than it is. Even if HP had opted for an entirely brushed aluminum chassis (as it has with past ProBooks), the 5330m would have still looked the part of a serious business laptop, only more elegant than the one we're looking at. In the end, clearly, it comes down to perception (or spin, perhaps). An HP rep described the look as "timeless." We say it's stodgy.


Also, one last gripe that's neither here nor there: what's up with the gratuitous Beats Audio branding? You'll find the logos painted on the upper-right hand corner of the bezel, as well as the front edge of the notebook -- both stinging annoyances since you can't do anything to remove them. And yes, we know how many of you guys feel about stickers, but if HP has some contractual obligation to promote the hell out of its partnership with Dr. Dre, at least use a medium people can dispose of once they unbox the laptop.

These quibbles aside, we were pleasantly surprised by how lightweight the 5330m is. Given its boxy 0.99-inch thick profile, we wouldn't blame you if you guessed this thing felt heavy. Indeed, at 3.99 pounds it weighs more than the 3.7-pound ThinkPad X1, though the wedge-shaped X1 is considerably thicker at its chunkiest point. In fact, the 5330m's heft means it'll feel more grounded when you use it in your lap. Not that the X1 ever slipped off while we were typing, of course; it's just that the 5330m has a more reassuring weight distribution. And, because the 5330m is narrower (12.9 inches across, compared to the X1's 13.3), it's easier to grip with one hand.

The 5330m's port list includes three USB 2.0 ports, including one that doubles as an eSATA connector. It also has a fingerprint reader, HDMI and VGA-out, an Ethernet jack, a Kensington lock slot, an SD / MMC memory card slot, and a combined headphone / mic port. Missing, oddly, is USB 3.0, a feature HP says it's reserving for its higher-end EliteBook series (for now, at least). It's a shame -- this would have been a sweet, sensible addition, particularly from a productivity standpoint.

The laptop also has a 720p webcam, which delivers bright picture quality with balanced colors, though as you can see in the resized still below, images are grainy, even with ample lighting.


Keyboard and touchpad

For anyone who's seen an HP laptop lately, the 5330m's island keyboard should look familiar. The keys have a soft finish and flat surface -- a contrast to Lenovo's ThinkPads, whose keys have scooped caps. The 5330m's keys are quieter, but not more precise -- they felt sticky, and often failed to register letters. This led to missing letters we could have sworn we typed (think "Gmil.com" instead of "Gmail"). The spacing between the keys is ideal, though, as you might expect with a laptop this size, HP did have to squish the arrow keys to ensure the letter and Shift keys had ample room. Bonus: the 5330m comes standard with a backlit keyboard, which helps liven up that staid design.

Many a time, we've knocked HP's laptops for shipping with flaky touchpads. We're happy to say the 5330m gets it right. The touchpad has a smooth, low-friction surface, and two-fingered scrolling works pretty well. Our only complaint is a cosmetic one, that the pad's taupe color is dreary and doesn't match the rest of the system. The buttons, too, are responsive, though they feel a bit mushy -- kind of like having trap doors beneath your fingers.

Display and Sound

Blessedly, HP topped off the 13.3-inch (1366 x 768) display with a matte finish, which makes it easy to view from oblique side angles. Still, that won't save you when you're trying to watch a movie from a plane's stowaway table -- when we tried watching a movie with the lid dipped forward, the picture looked awfully washed out. As you can see in the photo below, colors look pretty accurate (just hone in on Kermie's skin), though this is hardly the most eye-popping display you'll find. Still, its 200-nit brightness helped us work comfortably for long stretches in a variety of different situations, including a fluorescent office and a more dimly lit apartment.


The 5330m is HP's first business laptop to rock Beats Audio, the bass-heavy sound technology that's becoming ubiquitous in the company's consumer PCs. As promised, low notes notes stand out in songs such as "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes, though overall, we enjoyed a more immersive listening experience with the Dolby-equipped X1, whose speakers, by the by, are about as loud.

Performance and graphics

Our $899 system included a 2.5GHz Core i5-2520M CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200RPM drive, integrated Intel HD graphics, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional. Throughout our testing, the machine was able to handle whatever we threw at it, including email, blogs, music streaming, YouTube videos, as well as downloading -- and ultimately playing back -- an assortment of 720p and 1080p movies. It also manages a 40-second boot time, which is pretty darn fast for a Windows machine.

The laptop has integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, which somehow doesn't surprise us a lick. For what it's worth, though, its score of 3,839 on the graphics benchmark 3DMark06 manages to best the similarly spec'd ThinkPad X1. We also saw our World of Warcraft frame rates hovering around a playable 30fps, though that rate occasionally sank as low as 15fps when there was a plethora of characters running around the screen.

PCMarkVantage 3DMark06
Battery Life
HP ProBook 5330m (Core i5-2520M) 6,943 3,839 3:26
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (Core i5-2410M) 7,787 3,726 3:31 / 6:57
Samsung Series 9 (Core i5-2537M) 7,582 2,240 4:20
13-inch MacBook Air (Core 2 Duo, GeForce 320M) 5,170 4,643 4:45
ASUS U36Jc (Core i5 / NVIDIA GeForce 310M) 5,981 2,048 / 3,524 5:30
Dell Vostro V13 (Core 2 Duo) 2,687 556 2:39
Toshiba Portege R705 (Core i3-350M) 5,024 1,739 / 3,686 4:25
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

Battery life


The 5330m's small four-cell battery lasted three hours and twenty-six minutes in our battery rundown test, which involves playing a movie off the hard drive over and over with WiFi on and the screen's brightness set to 65 percent. Typically, we like to remind readers that that's a taxing test, and that you might expect longer battery life if you plan on staying inside your browser. In this case, though, we were on track for a similar time of four hours when we went about our usual routine, which includes checking and responding to Gmail messages, reading various blogs, streaming music through Grooveshark, and writing reviews, like this one. After an hour of doing all those things in the cloud, our battery life rating fell 30 percent.

The real shame here isn't so much the battery life, since the X1 notched a near-identical score with a similar processor-graphics card combo. (To be fair, of course, the low-powered MacBook Air made it nearly five hours, while the Samsung Series 9 came close to four and a half.) Rather, we have a bigger problem with the fact that this business laptop, of all things, isn't offered with an extended or slice battery, which is how Lenovo is compensating for the X1's less-than-stellar longevity. You can buy a spare for $129, but it'll have the same limited capacity as the battery that comes with the laptop.

Configuration Options

With this pre-configured $899 model, you'll get a Gobi mobile broadband module that supports both EVDO and HSPA. It's also compatible with HP DataPass, the company's new contract-less, pay-as-you-go mobile broadband service that piggybacks on Sprint's network. Alas, the unit HP loaned us is missing that module, so we weren't able to test 4G performance. For now, we can say with confidence that we like the idea of DataPass, and are all about people getting 3G radios built into their sub-$1,000 laptops.

For $100 less, there's another pre-built configuration with all the same specs, except it has a 2.1GHz Core i3-2310M CPU. You can also get a configurable version, though these start at $1,433. If you're building your own, you can expand to 8GB of RAM ($200), opt for a 128GB SSD ($225), and get that 3G radio for $124.

Software


In addition to some benign bloatware (e.g., Microsoft Office, Norton Internet Security), the 5330m comes loaded with various HP-branded utilities, including the newly enhanced security package, HP ProtectTools. This includes drive encryption, for one, along with tools to configure TPM and your fingerprint reader. We're still fans of Spare Key, a utility that lets you answer security questions to find your way into the computer in the event that you've forgotten your password. And this is all great. We just wish these tools were a little less invasive; HP's panoply of well-meaning tools pops up a whole lot more than Lenovo's similar ThinkVantage suite does.

Like other HP business laptops, the 5330m comes loaded with QuickWeb, and instant on browser that you can launch using a dedicated button that sits above the keyboard, next to the power key. If the computer's been powered down, you can expect the browser to load in about 12 seconds, at which point you'll see a browser built on Firefox, along with lots of easily customizable "tiles" -- a relatively new addition we'd prefer to describe as widgets. With these, you can glance at CNN and BBC headlines, weather, stock prices, and Twitter (our personal favorite) when you're not using the browser. It's true, your smartphone probably offers all this in the form of glanceable tidbits, too, but if QuickWeb is all about helping you get in and out when you don't have much time to surf, it's nice to not have to navigate to Twitter.com, weather.com, or some such.

Wrap-up

The ProBook 5330m's a hell of a laptop for what you'll likely pay: even if you opt for the lowest-end, $799 pre-configured model, you'll get an encrypted 7,200RPM drive, 3G radio, and fingerprint reader. And though we can't promise its design will be your cup of tea, it is lightweight enough for travel and built from high-quality materials, to boot. The one thing you can't expect is long battery life, thanks to that small four-cell and a dearth of any additional battery options. It just doesn't make sense for a thin-and-light system that's otherwise so ideal for business trips. For this reason and others (namely, the keyboard), we'd recommend the ThinkPad X1 for people who can afford the $1,349 starting price. But when it comes to sheer value, the 5330m gets high marks.
HP

HP ProBook 5330m

Pros

  • Solid build quality
  • Good performance / security specs for the price
  • Includes a 3G radio

Cons

  • 4-cell battery doesn't last long on a charge
  • No extended battery option
  • Occasionally stiff keyboard
Conclusion

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